Particularism: Wrapping Up

Here’s a quick summary of and conclusion to my talk on particularism at the Garage Blackboard lectures.

So what are we left with? Particularism is a view of ethics that eschews abstract answers in favour of getting to grips with the complex nature of each situation. We can’t figure out ‘ethics’ in advance: we’ve got to do it with each ethical decision. And ‘ethics’ isn’t a set of scientific laws, waiting to be discovered. It’s the weird, organic interactions between a myriad of factors that change moment to moment. A bit more like biology than physics! Particularism is more demanding – it stops us from leaning on theory, for instance – but it’s also more modest. It lets us withhold judgement all over the place and doesn’t ambitiously try to answer the really general ethical questions. These all seem like good characteristics of an ethics, at least to me. I hope they do to you as well.

Particularism and Moral Theory

In the final section of my talk on particularism I deal with a second objection: that particularism leaves us no room for philosophy as such.

Finally, let’s look at another objection to particularism. So far in this talk I’ve presented particularism as a kind of negative position: arguing that we can’t have ethical principles, but not really presenting what we should have instead (outside of a careful attention to the facts).  Opponents of particularism generally say here that particularism offers no actual way of talking about ethics. They argue that there’s no room for ethical philosophy as such in a particularist view. That’s not quite as serious as a claim that particularism is false, but it’s an objection that particularists have been quite concerned with – as they should be. Ethical philosophers don’t want to philosophize themselves out of a job.

The particularist’s aim here is to avoid total reliance on a kind of Aristotelian ‘practical wisdom’, which is a “just practice and develop your ethical awareness” approach. I want to say there’s at least two ways the particularist can do this, and probably many more. Let’s start with the first, which I find the most convincing. Margaret Little and Mark Lance – both ethical particularists – have argued that particularists should be able to use something very like ethical principles. Take the principle “murder is wrong” or “do not murder” – of course, the particularists say, this gets us nowhere if we see it as a grand truth about what is right. But what if, as Little and Lance suggest, we see it as something like a musical theme? “Murder is wrong” becomes then a kind of motif for ethics: it’s not present everywhere, just as a musical theme isn’t constantly repeated in a symphony. But we can see echoes of it all over the place. Cases where murder is right, Little says, are going to be weird cases. That doesn’t have to mean uncommon cases, but it does mean a case where something has gone wrong – i.e the dog-eat-dog world of Mad Max or an instance of violent self-defense.  Particularists can theorize about ethics like people theorize about music: picking out the themes, noting the variations and so on. Anyway. I don’t want to belabour this point; I’m just suggesting a way particularists can use theory.

A second way has been outlined by Gerald Dworkin, who suggests we engage in something like common-law legal reasoning when we do ethics. Instead of dealing with principles at all, we talk exclusively about cases and precedent: picking out past or hypothetical instances where certain judgements seem clear, and trying to see the relevant similarities and differences between those instances that might motivate new judgements. This is a way more modest approach than Little’s: Dworkin isn’t saying that we can isolate relevant moral considerations this way: a relevant factor in one case might be irrelevant in another. He’s saying we can make particular decisions on a case-by-case basis. That’s it.

I haven’t really argued for either Little’s view or Dworkin’s view – that’s outside the scope of this talk. All I want to demonstrate is that particularism has a few options for doing ethical philosophy. If you’ve got no interest in philosophy and just want to make good ethical decisions, you can forget this part of the talk right away.

Particularism and Invariant Valence

Here’s the second-last section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk on particularism. I deal with one common objection to the theory.

Let’s take a quick look at one common objection to particularism. People who aren’t particularists – generalists – generally say at this point that particularists are just looking at the wrong principles. Generalists think there are actually some moral reasons that don’t change in an organic whole: that, if they count for an action, will count for it no matter the context. Here’s an example: “the fact that you’ve made a promise is always a moral reason to keep it”. That’s a little more sophisticated than “keep your promises!” Let’s say that you borrow a book, and then find that you could destroy the book to save a life. The principle “keep your promises!” seems to be just defeated by the context. But it might still be true that you have a moral reason to give the book back – it’s just that such a reason is outweighed.

However. What if you find out the book is stolen, and the person who it was stolen from desperately wants it back? It looks like in that situation you have no reason at all to return the book to the thief – your promise is quite literally voided by the context. Take another example of an unchanging principle: “the fact that an action would increase happiness is always a moral reason to do it”. Well, what about the pleasure of a sadist? The sadist’s pleasure is not the “moral silver lining” of the situation. It’s part of what makes the sadist so morally repulsive. It changes the moral character of the sadist’s actions for the worse. I think these examples show us how hard it is to find a moral principle that doesn’t change itself in different contexts.

Particularism and Organic Unity

Here’s the fourth section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk on particularism. I’m finally getting into an actual explanation of what particularists believe:

Now the particularist doesn’t like the science-like approach to ethics at all.  And that’s because the particularist has a view about reasons that’s very interesting. Jonathan Dancy, perhaps the best-known particularist currently writing, begins one of his books by comparing reasons to rats. If you put two or more rats together, it’s very hard to predict what they’ll do. They might fight, they might ignore each other, they might have any kind of relationship. And the particularist thinks it’s the same with moral reasons. The landscape of moral reasons is horrendously complicated – certainly too complicated for general principles.
Here’s an example from Dancy. Say you’re visiting a friend in LA, and she asks if there’s any dietary restrictions you have. You tell her that you don’t eat veal, because you think it’s unethical. She replies: “yes, the conditions in which they keep those calves are terrible – and besides, it’s impossible to get good veal in Los Angeles anyway!” Now those two reasons are both reasons not to eat veal. But there’s a kind of inconsistency in putting them together that makes them weaker than either reason would be by itself.

In technical terms, moral reasons form organic unities. The concept of an organic unity was popularized in 1903 by G.E. Moore (who obliquely attributed the idea to Hegel). Moore’s idea – which particularists more or less agree with – was that in any given case, the set of relevant moral considerations combines in weird ways to form one general consideration. You can’t figure out your moral obligation by just listing the various considerations for or against – you have to take a good, holistic look at how these considerations combine to form a whole.

So. Particularists think that our moral reasons tend to combine in complicated, unpredictable ways. We think that any principle like “murder is wrong” or “we should create happiness” is going to be unhelpful: not only are there going to be a ton of exceptions, but there’s no way to predict in advance how all our principles are going to interact in cases of conflict. Hardcore particularists conclude that there just don’t exist any good moral principles. More modest particularists think that good moral principles might exist, but we don’t need them. The real task of ethics is not going to be figuring out or applying principles, but getting a good look at what exactly is going on in any particular case.

Particularism and Ethics as a Science

Here’s the third section of my Garage Blackboard Lectures talk about particularism. In it I outline what I take to be the mainstream philosophical method of ethics, which particularism vehemently disagrees with:

So what’s the problem with ethics? I think it’s a tendency – maybe a post-Enlightenment thing – to try and treat ethics like a science. Certainly in deontological and utilitarian approaches you can see the standard scientific approach play out: break everything down into atomic units, then find the laws governing how those units relate to each other. Just as physicists try and figure out the ‘most basic’ particles and how they work together – or astronomers calculate the interactions between bodies of mass – moral philosophers have tried to find the most basic moral reasons and how those reasons interact.

Utiltiarians think the most basic moral reason – the only one, in fact – is happiness. That an act would increase happiness is a moral reason to do that act. Deontologists think there are a few basic moral reasons – to avoid killing, to respect others, and so on. Nearly everyone agrees that if we can find more fundamental reasons that would encompass our existing ones, then we should take those as ‘better’ moral principles.  The basic assumption is that the moral landscape is governed by general rules. The ultimate goal, presumably, is a set of rules – a theory – such that we could plug in every difficult moral decision and get the right thing to do.

I want to note here that this philosophical approach to ethics is painfully at odds with how we actually engage in ethics daily. We don’t reach for theories when making decisions. If we’re asked to explain why we’ve acted in a certain way, I think our general impulse is not to go more abstract (I bought Tim a coffee because it is always right to do X in situation Y) but to focus on the particular details (I bought Tim a coffee because he had a bad day, because he looked worn-down, etc etc etc).

Particularism: The Problem with Mainstream Moral Philosophy

Here’s the next section of my talk at the Garage Blackboard Lectures:

In 1912, H.A. Prichard wrote a hugely influential paper called “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake” – a provocative title – where he expressed a dissatisfaction with ethical philosophy. The emphasis on arguments and abstraction left him pretty cold. If we wanted to be convinced about our moral obligation to not steal or kill, he wrote, we just have to get face to face with a particular instance of, say, murder or theft. All this general argument stuff just won’t do it.

In 1976, half a century later, Michael Stocker wrote another influential and provocative paper called “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories”. He pointed out the way popular ethical theories like our Big Three fail to take account of motive. If you’re a utilitarian, say, you’ll act to produce the most happiness in the greatest number. But if you’re visiting your sick friend in the hospital, and he thanks you for coming, and you say “well, I didn’t come because of my friendship with you, but because I judged it was the act that would produce the most happiness in the greatest number…” Well, your friend would probably not be impressed with how saintly you are.

In 1985, Annette Baier wrote a great paper arguing that the way the Big Three are taught tends to produce not more ethical students, but totally amoral students. When you’re taught three (or thirty, since the Big Three have a ton of variants) different abstract frameworks for ethics, that in some places are similar and in some places are different, that seem to have exactly the same weight of evidence behind them, Baier thinks it’s tempting to just reject ethics altogether and opt for a more univocal motivation: like self-interest.

There’s some reason to think Baier’s right! In 2009, the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek study that showed this: relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing than non-ethics books, and that classic (pre-1900) ethics books were about twice as likely to be missing. So! I hope all that has given you reason to believe that there’s something wrong in ethical philosophy – and I should note that this is all analytic ethical philosophy; these criticisms don’t necessarily extend to continental or Asian ethical philosophy.

What is Ethical Particularism?

After a long hiatus, I’m back for a bit. Over the next week or two I’m going to post sections of a talk I gave the other day at the Garage Blackboard Lectures on ethical particularism. Here’s the introductory bit:

Hi everyone! In this talk I’ll try to convince you that you ought to be an ethical particularist – or, failing that, I’ll at least try to explain what ethical particularism is and why it’s interesting. Ethical particularism is the view that says there are no ethical principles, and we shouldn’t rely on ethical principles when we make decisions. Of course that’s a controversial view, and the first part of my talk will attempt to show why such a radical approach is warranted. I’ll be arguing that there’s something fundamentally weird about large parts of ethical philosophy. Then I’ll talk about reasons – in particular, moral reasons – and what the particularist thinks about the way moral reasons combine. Finally I’ll try address the common objection that without general principles we can’t do ethical philosophy or communication. Two notes: I’ll be talking in the context of analytic philosophy, and I’ll be using “moral” and “ethical” interchangeably.

I don’t know how many of you have taken undergrad courses in ethical philosophy, but if you have you’ll know the Big Three theories in ethics: utilitarianism, virtue ethics and deontology. These are the three main things you get taught, and different theories are usually situated in relation to these big ones. Utilitarianism is the theory that we ought to do what would promote the most happiness. Virtue ethics is the theory that we ought to do what the just, courageous, etc person would. Deontology is the theory that we ought to abide by the Moral Law – and usually deontologists have a pretty clear idea of what that law is. Now this is a pretty rough statement of these three theories, but I think it’s pretty clear that they occupy a certain level of abstraction. That is, they’re theories about what we should do in general. General principles, in other words. They all take for granted that we can devise a set of abstract precepts that will cover all instances (or at least cover them well enough). But why should we think this is the right way to think about ethics?

An Unquestioning Frame of Mind

Prichard makes a very interesting observation in the middle of one of his moral essays. “All questions,” he writes “arise from an essentially unquestioning frame of mind.” Something has to be taken for granted for a question to be asked in the first place. There needs to be a firm place to ask a question from.

What does this mean? Well, it means that every question makes unquestioned assumptions. Even the question “what unquestioned assumptions does this question make?” makes unquestioned assumptions: about the nature of questions and assumptions, about the perspective of the asker etc. And so on.

You might want to say that the interesting question-behind-the-question is the set of unquestioned assumptions. This would be the basis for a kind of Nietzschean analysis: what basic frame of mind would one need to have to ask the questions of, say, dualism? What frame of mind would you need to have to ask the questions that Nietzsche asks?

Can Testimony be Moral Knowledge?

I’ve been reading a paper by Karen Jones about testimony and moral knowledge. The question is basically this: can we ever learn moral facts from other people, or do we have to come up on them by ourselves? Intuitively – and most philosophers have agreed – the nature of moral knowledge means we have to learn it on our own. It’s like knowing how to ride a bicycle. You can’t just be told how, you have to try it out and develop the know-how yourself.

Imagine if you asked somebody why murder was wrong, and they responded by saying “oh, my parents told me”. Such an answer would provoke astonishment at the very least. What kind of psychopath hasn’t figured out for himself that murder is wrong? It is the kind of thing that grown adults expect other grown adults to understand, not just take on faith.

Jones disagrees with all this. She gives as her example sexist behaviour in a communal living arrangement: two women try to kick a man out for his perceived sexism. A second man asks for examples of the sexism and is told that it was just a way of looking at them, or an attitude during conversations. The second man can’t understand how this constitutes sexism. Should he accept that this kind of behaviour is wrong on faith, or should he stick to what he knows and demand that the first man stay in the house?

Jones thinks that it is possible to have expertise in particular areas of ethics. A woman who has suffered from sexism all her life, Jones says, is a better judge of what particular behaviours are sexist or not (and therefore what behaviours are wrong or right) than an average man. This can easily be generalized down all axes of oppression.

In certain contexts, according to Jones, we should simply trust the moral judgements of those with more experience than us. We do this all the time as children, Jones points out, as we learn about ethics. Remember the first example I mentioned? Perhaps what we should accept is that this learning process never really stops.

(By the way, it’s exam time over here. That’s why posts have been infrequent the past few weeks. Regular service should return shortly.)

Against Chesterton

I am a huge fan of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I tell you that Orthodoxy is crap: it is lazy philosophy, it is badly structured, it is at times rambling and at other times glib. Chesterton’s one saving grace is his extraordinarily pleasant style – like Wilde, he is an absolute joy to read – and while that style comes through in Orthodoxy, it jars heavily with the content.

Like his detective Gabriel Syme, Chesterton has an ingrained tendency to contrarianism. What makes him (and Syme) interesting is that his contrarianism is turned against radical ideas. He is a contrarian in the service of orthodoxy. So far, so good – but if only he wasn’t so obvious about it!

“I used to be a die-hard atheist,” Chesterton declares (my words, of course), “until I read several books making the case for atheism, which quite turned me to Christianity.” Such a construction occurs every few pages in Orthodoxy . Once would have been clever, or even twice, but after thirty repetitions of the same format I grew to loathe it. Chesterton’s crass attempt to pass off his contrarian temperament as – what? Some special marker of genius? – rings painfully false.

In about ten pages Chesterton zooms through the recent history of Western philosophy, declaring it the “suicide of thought”, “thought turned in upon itself”. Some choice quotes:

“[the philosophy of will] came, I suppose, through Nietzsche, who preached something that is called egoism. That, indeed, was simpleminded enough; for Nietzsche denied egoism simply by preaching it. To preach anything is to give it away.”

“Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.”

Talk about a “cheery minor poet!” Has Chesterton ever read Nietzsche? The whole section reads like a criticism of Nietzsche based off the titles of his books. But let’s pass on to the apologetics part of Orthodoxy, where it becomes painfully obvious that Chesterton is out of his depth.

“…my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. … The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism— the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say “a peasant saw a ghost,” I am told, “But peasants are so credulous.” If I ask, “Why credulous?” the only answer is—that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.”

Forget Nietzsche, has Chesterton never read David Hume? Here is Chesterton’s argument, restated in all its glory:

1)A peasant claims a miracle has occurred.
2) To deny that is to say that the peasant is untrustworthy or that miracles are a priori impossible.
3) But peasants are on the whole trustworthy.
4) If you claim miracles are a priori impossible you are arguing in a circle.
5) Therefore miracles!

This is truly awful philosophy. To set the discovery of America against the claim of ghosts as if they were somehow epistemologically equivalent – it defies refutation only because it is so difficult to see how somebody could come to believe such a thing. Does Chesterton accept every account of testimony, on the grounds that people are generally trustworthy? Does he read Herodotus and believe in giant ants? It is an epistemological argument that totally ignores non-testimonial evidence: both the evidence of our own lives, in which miracles do not happen, and the evidence (as Hume pointed out) of all the ‘miracles’ that have been debunked.

And so on. When it comes to apologetics, Chesterton is a kind of second-rate C.S.  Lewis, who is himself a very third-rate Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard in particular would never have made the mistake Chesterton makes all the way through Orthodoxy: that of confusing Christianity with Christendom.

Chesterton defends “traditional” Christianity against the corrupting influences of society. He argues that it – like Jesus – is fundamentally more radical than its radical detractors; more romantic than the romance of atheism. There’s a grain of truth here. Properly understood, Christianity is extraordinarily radical. “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world,” Chesterton writes, in reference to the eye of the needle. But would it not be a deadly ultimatum to the Church as well? Would it not boil modern orthodoxy – which, of course, is fully entrenched in tradition and society – to rags?

When Kierkegaard railed against the world, he had the good sense to include tradition in his criticism. Almost by definition, tradition is lazy. It is the great mass of people, and the way is far too straight and narrow for such a herd. Kierkegaard devised what I still think of as an infallible test for anybody who wishes to write in support of Christianity. If the bulk of the people support you, he said, be sure that you are greatly in error. If you are by turns ignored and criticized, you are heading towards the right track. However, until they fall upon you and kill you, you can never be sure you’re getting it right. Orthodoxy, of course, was very well received.

Chesterton’s largest success is making orthodoxy and tradition seem romantic, but it’s also his largest betrayal. Orthodoxy gives lazy traditionalists the sense of being great radicals without ever having to do anything particularly radical. Chesterton reaps the benefits of a contrarian temperament while criticizing contrarian temperaments; he borrows from Oscar Wilde’s style while taking lazy swipes at Oscar Wilde. He comes across, I think, as pretty ungrateful.